1 June, 2023


The Year 1988: JVP Demands And The Coalition Government Interlude

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Rajan Hoole

The Year 1988: The Red Moon Over Sri Lanka And The Dawn Of New Wisdom – Part 6

A particular episode is very revealing about the manner in which different parties approached the elections. The JVP was not attacking Premadasa and Premadasa was saying that the JVP was innocent and that the SLFP was behind the violence. Having given hopes to the SLFP, the JVP became a thorn in its flesh and on 21st October banned SLFP meetings in the Uva Province. It began insisting that it would remain part of the 8 party alliance only if its proverbial 11 points were met. The 7 remaining parties wrote to Jayewardene asking for a meeting to discuss these – that is the President to dissolve parliament and step down, and elections under a caretaker government.

Premadasa said at a meeting with his peculiar logic, “The JVP is not among the 7 parties asking for a caretaker government so that the violence could be brought to an end. Therefore, the JVP is not responsible for the violence. It is the SLFP that is articulating the violence”.

As an experienced campaigner, Mrs. Bandaranaike could hold her own. She said, “The Prime Minister (Premadasa) is on record saying that the JVP is not responsible for any killings. Then why are his own security forces hunting the JVP?” Yet, the drift of events was against her. The JVP was giving her dead ropes. Its only interest, if possible, was to use the SLFP to get Jayewardene to install a caretaker government and step down.

This was the time (26th October) the brutal killing of three supposedly pro-JVP students, allegedly by the son of Ratnapura MP Punchi Nilame, became an issue. (The same MP was also accused of playing a prominent role in the 1981 anti-Tamil violence.)

Jayewardene’s response (Sunday Times 30 Oct. 88) to the 11 JVP demands that were raised with him by its 7 allies, was essentially that the release of detainees was possible, if it would bring a permanent end to violence. He added that the immediate lifting of the emergency and that the dissolution of parliament could be seriously considered if the foregoing conditions are met. Then the paramilitary groups including the STF, he said, could be disbanded if they exist. He would step down, he said, if it would help the situation. He added that in that event Premadasa would become president according to the constitution and asked if they would like that. He remained a master politician to the last, who could have achieved much if his abilities were directed aright.

Whether at this time the 7 party alliance was serious about getting Jayewardene to accept the JVP’s demands needs to be doubted. The SLFP was beginning to have doubts about the free ride with the JVP. Whether the JVP wanted to enter Parliament must also be doubted. After all the decision to arm was largely the consequence of Wijeweera getting barely about 4% of the votes cast in the 1982 presidential poll. Behind the public rhetoric, there was a certain convergence between Jayewardene and the SLFP.

Ronnie de Mel who had left the UNP earlier in the year and was with the SLFP, went out of the way at this time to defend Jayewardene and the Accord which Mrs. Bandaranaike had threatened to abrogate. At a public meeting about 1st November, he blamed Premadasa for the bad relations with India resulting from his personal remarks against Mrs. Gandhi. He also said that the South exploded in July 1987 when the Sri Lankan Forces barely controlled the North-East. It was in this situation that Jayewardene asked for 3000 Indian troops. For a leading SLFPer, it was in sharp contradiction to all the uncomplimentary things Mrs. Bandaranaike had been saying about the Indian Army’s presence. The reality was that this was an issue for the SLFP only as long as it was in alliance with the JVP. After all, Mrs. Bandaranaike had got down Indian troops in 1971 to guard key installations during the first JVP uprising.

What then happened is not surprising. On 6th November representatives of the 7 party alliance met with President Jayewardene who agreed to dissolve Parliament and have a caretaker government with equal representation from both the present government and the opposition (see Qadri Ismail, Sunday Times 13 and 20 Nov. 1988). Evidently, Jayewardene had consulted only that section of the UNP close to him. Unlike in August when Jayewardene first thought of a national government, by November the SLFP had lost all hopes of JVP support and was, for a change, conscious of its weak position.

The UNP members close to Jayewardene were convinced that Premadasa was manipulating the JVP and might have hoped that by choosing Premadasa as presidential candidate, they may ward off JVP violence. This did not materialise. During the preceding month at least 5 UNP provincial council candidates, 1 working committee member and several more

organisers and supporters had been gunned down. They did not relish a victory by Premadasa. Some of them would also have known that under cover of the JVP violence, the state machinery was being used in a covert campaign of terror against the SLFP grass-roots. There would have also been reservations about sending back the Indian Army from the North- East as Premadasa wanted, if JVP violence continued. To them, checking Premadasa’s ambitions by forming a national government would have seemed a logical step. It is perhaps in this context that Jayewardene was quoted by Gunaratne (p.287), as having said in early November, that India will come to his help if the JVP tries to topple his Government. Dixit who must have been well informed has said nothing about this episode.

Among the leading UNPers pressing for a dissolution of Parliament, was Shelton Ranaraja who argued that although ministers had their security their supporters were vulnerable. According to Ismail, 90 minutes after Jayewardene agreed to a national government, he contacted Mrs. Bandaranaike and added an impossible condition that the Alliance must bring Wijeweera into the caretaker cabinet. According to an SLFPer quoted by Ismail, this happened after, as he suspected, an individual in the 7 party alliance leaked the caretaker arrangement to Premadasa.

According to other sources, Premadasa on hearing about the agreement to form a national government, angrily stormed into Jayewardene’s residence and used some strong language. The same sources believe that Mrs. Jayewardene had intervened in alarm on behalf of her husband. Jayewardene dropped the idea, not feeling strong enough, perhaps, to fight an additional force, which in July 1983 and before had shown its hand in Colombo Central.

Ismail says that Premadasa was against the dissolution of Parliament on the grounds that he needed 140 UNP MPs to conduct an effective campaign. Ismail then observes that hardly any of these MPs are going to the election front anyway. What mattered indeed was the state machinery. The ministers from his party who valued their future had to do his bidding. Those who did not, had no future in the UNP. It is notable that soon after the national government proposal crashed, Justice Minister Nissanka Wijeratne and his deputy Shelton Ranaraja resigned. Both of them had welcomed the political solution under the Indo-Lanka Accord.

Thereafter Mrs. Bandaranaike’s prospects of being elected under the prevailing unconventional ground rules were effectively crippled. On 10th November – nomination day – posters proscribing the SLFP appeared in the Southern Province along with announcements to that effect on clandestine radio. During the coming days Mrs. Bandaranaike had to cancel her election rallies in Anuradhapura and Kurunegala.

The JVP forced civilians on pain of death to defy curfew and to demonstrate against the holding of the presidential election. Scores of curfew breakers were gunned down by the security forces. The Army was forced to take over transport services and distribute fuel after the JVP killed five drivers from the Ceylon Transport Board.

By this time the JVP’s tactics, which manifested themselves in work stoppages, dislocation of transport and services, fear, threats and uncertainty of life, unnerved the elite who are used to a very organised existence. Many important professional associations and the senior Buddhist prelates – the Mahanayakes – issued statements of despair reiterating the JVP’s demands with variations. This phenomenon was parallel to what obtained in the North-East, with the difference that the State was far more powerful in the South.

While holding the Government responsible for the deteriorating conditions, there was hardly any appeal to the JVP by these civil bodies, unions etc., to stop its own violence and to respect life and democratic freedoms. Thus, their public statements became in effect, calls for appeasement. Associated in one statement of this kind were the GMOA (Government Medical Officers’ Association), leading unions of engineers, the Central Bank Executive Officers’ Union and the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations. Jayewardene announced on 3rd December that Parliament would be dissolved on the 20th, the day after the presidential election, and parliamentary elections would be held on 15th February 1989.

In this situation the Left that had constantly raised issues against the State, championed the grievances of minorities and who had over the decades done the most to sustain democracy, suddenly found themselves orphaned. Their members were being mercilessly killed by the  JVP. The maiden rally of the Socialist Alliance presidential candidate Ossie Abeygoonesekere (SLMP) at Stace Road Junction, Grand Pass, on 17th November, was attacked with bombs while NSSP leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara was speaking. Two were killed and 85 were injured. The influential sections of society seemed only too ready to leave them to their fate with hardly a word of concern and, if it were possible, solve their own immediate problems with the JVP.

The Left and allied political groups faced a terrible moral dilemma, which drove many of them wrongly to become cynical about the people as a whole. Their lives were in danger and they were abandoned by those who should have stood by them. Only the gun seemed to matter. The UNP had its guns. The SLFP-alliance once had illusions about the JVP’s guns. The UNP Government threw the Left what seemed a lifeline – guns and security. Among the most effective of the several para-military groups (most of whom were UNP based, the SLFP coming in later) which hunted the JVP and its sympathisers was the PRRA (Peoples Revolutionary Red Army) which went into action from late November 1988. Its contacts were in the Left, associated NGOs and the Independent Students Union (ISU). Two of ISU’s successive leaders, Daya Pathirana (in 1986) and Dharmasiri (in 1989), were killed by the JVP. Crucially the most effective in crushing the JVP were intellectuals and others from the broader Left who came to work secretively with Army Intelligence.

It was a disaster for the Southern Left comparable with the fate of the Tamil Left – e.g. EPRLF – about the same time. The EPRLF was then allied to the Indian Army. In both instances, there were sections of the Left who would fight the JVP/LTTE themselves or emigrate rather than get drawn into the agenda of a state. In the Tamil instance a large number of those who refused to come under India’s arm and remained passive, were later tortured and killed by the LTTE. In the South many in the Left followed their first step of working with the State, by then going completely to the Right – the UNP of Premadasa. Democracy in the South received a blow from which it never recovered. The words and slogans are there, but the spirit is gone.

A final performance by Athulathmudali in the semantic vein associated with him deserves mention. The new found zeal for human rights in the South had stood in the way of the Government’s attempts from about July to pass an indemnity bill. However, by December, given the SLFP’s troubles with the JVP, this zeal was wearing thin. At the end of November, the bill was brought to Parliament in the form of an amendment to Indemnity Act No.20 of 1982. This Act is illustrative of the strange attitude to legislation in the UNP government, involving a systematic ambiguity of intentions.

As stated the Act was intended ‘to safeguard those who had acted or were reported to have acted to restore law and order in the country from 1st August to 31st August 1977’. It covered the period of post- election violence against the defeated SLFP in the first half of August 1977 as well as the anti-Tamil violence in the second half. We understand that the legislation was brought five years later because of some court cases to do with post- election violence, notably around Kandy. The Act also foreclosed any prospect of pressing legal charges against state officials named by the Sansoni Commission with respect to the anti- Tamil violence.

The Act provided that ‘no civil or criminal proceedings should be instituted against nor legal action taken against… ministers, deputy ministers, a member of whatever rank in the armed forces or police… who received orders from a minister or any person in the service of the Sri Lankan Government… [Such persons] will be provided an indemnity for their actions in the event that this action was done with good intention to protect law and order… or for the common good of the public’. The intention at that point of time (i.e. 1982) was indicated by the following, “Any [legal] action before or after this act will be null and void”.

The amendment proposed by Athulathmudali was to extend the validity of the Act to the present time (i.e. December 1988). He argued: “It was wrong to think that the bill was concerned to deal with the situation outside the North- East. Only acts done in good faith will be indemnified. If the law is not changed a separatist who was granted amnesty [under the Indo-Lanka Accord] could sue a member of the security forces. A terrorist who fired at a soldier in bad faith is excused, but the soldier who fired at the terrorist in good faith is not pardoned”.

If that were the whole truth, there was no need to extend the indemnity beyond July 1987 when the Sri Lankan Army ceased to be active in the North-East. During 1988 however, noises had been made about starting legal proceedings with regard to the Welikade prison massacres of 1983. A favourite device of politicians in the Sinhala Only mould, when foisting something unpleasant on the Sinhalese, is to argue that the thorns are intended for the Tamils alone.

To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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  • 0

    During this period, many Sinhalese were against JVP.
    A batch mate of mine (pro jvp’er) was very angry at JVP for their actions.
    He praised LTTE for fighting Indians, and mad at JVP for killing fellow Sinhalese.

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